An ode to the tomato

Rick Nelson,
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

What is it about tomatoes? That they have the garden’s broadest color palette? That they impress straight off the vine? That they’re the backbone of so many favorite dishes? That they can grab center stage in a near-improvised meal? That their highly perishable qualities make them the poster child for locally grown foods? That they take to preservation of all stripes, whether it’s freezing, or canning? All of the above. Find out how three chefs make the most of this fleeting bounty:

Wyatt Evans

Tomato love: “I have a love-hate relationship with tomatoes,” he said. “I love fresh tomatoes when they’re in season, but when they’re not, I don’t bother. If they’re not local, and in season, they’re like an unripe avocado, and why bother? You know it’s going to be a disappointment. I’m picky about them.”

In his restaurant’s kitchen garden (Heirloom, in St. Paul, Minnesota), he’s cultivating Napa Chardonnay Blush cherry tomatoes, and Michael Pollans, named for the food writer. “I’ve never grown them before,” he said. “They’re pear-shaped, an Italian plum tomato. They’re a bit larger than a cherry tomato. I don’t think they’ll turn out too big.”

Tips: “You want a tomato that has never seen refrigeration; that’s always going to be the best tomato,” he said. “At work, we store them on a flat surface, shoulders and stem down, in a single layer, at room temperature. It depends on how ripe they are when they’re picked, but you’ve usually got about three days. That’s the tragic dichotomy of ripeness. If you pick them when they’re really, really ripe, then they’ve already hit their apex and they’re on their way to going rotten. You need that beautiful little window — when they’re just becoming ripe — to get the maximum in terms of flavor and texture.”

Off the clock, he follows the KISS — Keep it Simple, Stupid — rule. Tomato slices, with very few embellishments. “I don’t care for balsamic vinegar with tomatoes,” he said. “All that’s necessary is really good olive oil and really good salt. Or make a salad, cutting them and tossing them with herbs from the garden. Or a BLT. Toasted bread, tomatoes, lettuce and good-quality bacon, that’s our go-to at home. Just work with what you have on hand, and have fun with it.”

His recipe: Oven-parched tomatoes. “It’s what you do when you have a ton of tomatoes around, and you’ll never be able to use them all,” he said. “This will extend their shelf life by a week, and that’s the difference between using them and throwing them away. And it concentrates their flavors.”

It’s easy. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil and preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Depending upon the size of the tomato, Evans advises cutting the larger tomatoes into quarters, and the smaller ones into thick slices. Toss the tomatoes with chopped shallot and garlic, salt, fresh thyme and olive oil. Bake them two to six hours (depending upon the size of the tomatoes), until the tomato’s skin is easily removed.

“You don’t want them to get to the sun-dried stage,” he said. “Take them to where they’re moist, and leathery, not dry.”

Transfer the peeled tomatoes to a tightly covered container and refrigerate for up to a week.

“Use it as you would use tomato paste,” he said. “Or put them on pizza. For me, it’s a pantry staple.”

At Heirloom, St. Paul, Minnesota: “They’ll find their way into the menu,” he said. “We’ll do a chilled gazpacho soup. I’ll make a Bloody Mary cocktail sauce. And a flavored aspic for a shrimp dish. I love mint and tomato together. And I really like a pickled element with tomatoes, because it makes the tomatoes sweeter. Like onions, or ramps, or cucumbers, gently pickled, nothing too assertive.”

Alan Bergo

Tomato love: “When tomatoes are in season, it’s like Christmastime,” he said. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that our geographical region is what it is. Our tomatoes taste good when they’re in season, and that’s it. When you have less of something, it means you like it more. If we had heirlooms all year, they would become kind of routine. But if you wait, and wait, and wait, and keep checking the availability and they finally show up, it’s all that much more exciting.”

Tips: “It’s super fun to try to get to know the different species,” he said. “You can turn the farmers market into a big Easter egg hunt. I love the little Sun Golds, they’re so good. I don’t see white tomatoes very often, but making a white tomato sauce is supercool.”

His recipe: Pasta with heirloom tomatoes. “I like to blanch heirlooms, peel off the skin, take out the seeds and then toss them with pasta, butter, herbs and a little garlic or garlic scapes,” he said.

It starts by filling a pot with salted water and bringing it to a boil over high heat.

“The water has to be boiling, really boiling, with a little salt in it,” he said. “Use a paring knife and score the tomatoes. Carefully drop them in the water for a short time — super-brief, just a few seconds for an heirloom, because the skins are so fragile — and then immerse them in ice water.”

When they’re cool enough to handle, the skins will peel right off. From there, he cuts the tomatoes to remove the seeds. The next step is to prepare the pasta, according to the directions on the package.

While the pasta is cooking, “take a big blob of butter and some olive oil,” he said, and place them in a skillet over medium heat. In goes some garlic (or garlic scapes), which he cooks until it’s just starting to brown. To that he’ll add some fresh basil and red pepper flakes.

“Maybe I’ll wilt a handful of greens, if we have them, or I’ll add some shrimp,” he said.

Toss in the peeled and seeded tomatoes, lightly stir to combine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Drain the pasta, then toss the pasta with the tomato-garlic mixture. A beautiful summer dinner, in less than 20 minutes.

“On the farm, this is one of our favorites,” he said.

At Lucia’s Restaurant, Minneapolis: “We get in as many tomatoes as possible, and put them all over the menu,” he said, about Lucia’s Restaurant. “I’m in love with a chopped-up watermelon and tomatoes. A little bit of vinegar, some jalapenos — or those tiny hot dried chilies — and some feta, or chevre. Herbs, too, maybe lemon basil, or mint. It’s hard to find dishes that hit all sorts of notes at once, but this one does, it’s a complex combination. You get sour, sweet, salty, spicy, aromatic and cold and refreshing, all at once. Sometimes we forget that tomatoes are a fruit and not a vegetable. We sell out of it.”

Brianna Baldus

Tomato love: “I have a lot of fond memories around tomatoes,” she said. “I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota. I’d walk down to my great-grandparents’ house. My great-grandpa would be reading his newspaper on the porch, and he’d get a tomato and cut it in half. One side got salt; the other side got sugar. He’d eat the salt first, then the sweet, then he’d smoke his pipe and eat honey roasted peanuts. I would eat tomatoes like apples. The other grandkids would be eating sugar cookies.”

Tips: Baldus likes to turn excess cherry tomatoes into dinner. Here’s how: Grease a baking sheet with olive oil, and arrange whole cherry tomatoes in a single layer. Add whole cloves of garlic, splash with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (for a sweeter profile, add honey) and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 375 degree oven for about 25 minutes, then add fresh herbs (“whatever you have in the garden”) and roast for an additional five minutes. “You roast them until they’re luscious, and juicy, and they’re beautiful when they shrivel,” she said. “Pair it with pasta; use it as a crostini at a dinner party or serve it as a side dish. I freeze it, and I’ve also canned it, because it makes for a great on-the-fly gift. You get invited to a party on a Sunday night, and you can grab something homemade in your cupboard.”

Her recipe: “I like to do a simple galette,” she said. “It’s super-easy. You don’t even have to make the dough; you can use store-bought puff pastry.”

Since she always has Dijon mustard in her refrigerator, she spreads it across the puff pastry. “Then I’ll slice tomatoes thin and spread them out. Top that with ricotta and fresh basil — or an herb mix from my garden.” Bake according to the instructions on the puff pastry package. “It’s dinner in less than half an hour,” she said. “It’s so versatile. You can do minis — line muffin tins with puff pastry — and serve them at a dinner party. I made it the other night and had the best leftovers the next day for breakfast, with a poached egg on it.”

At the Wise Acre Eatery, Minneapolis: “We’re getting an influx of tomatoes this week, so we’ll have a summer vegetable galette on the menu. It’s a simple go-to, and it’s so relatable.” Oh, and ketchup. “We’ve got a lot of Green Zebra tomatoes coming in this week,” she said. “We’ll pickle the majority, but we’ll also start making green tomato ketchup. We have a long-standing debate at the restaurant as to what real ketchup is. Here’s my kick to those who yell at me on Yelp because I don’t have quote-unquote ‘real’ ketchup: We’re never going to offer Heinz because I have all of these great ingredients at my disposal: beets, rhubarb, green tomatoes.”

The farm’s impressive tomato output is on display when Baldus hosts the Wise Acre’s annual on-the-farm dinner in August (go to for details) at its Plato, Minnesota, acreage. “That’s going to be my big push for tomatoes,” she said. “You’ll see a lot of tomatoes on that menu.”

Burst Tomatoes and Cashew Ricotta Tartine

From “Dishing up the Dirt,” by Andrea Bemis

For cashew ricotta

1 cup raw cashews, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

For tartine

2 pints (4 cups) cherry tomatoes

Olive oil

A few sprigs fresh thyme

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf rustic-style bread, sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced into 3-inch-long sections

To prepare cashew ricotta: Drain cashews and run them under cold water. Place cashews in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, along with 1/4 cup water, lemon juice, yeast, garlic and sea salt. Process, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary, until mixture is thick and creamy, with a consistency reminiscent of full-fat ricotta cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. (Ricotta can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days).

To prepare tartine: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil. Toss cherry tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and thyme sprigs. Spread on a baking sheet and roast until tomatoes are blistered and starting to burst, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven.

Increase oven temperature to broil. Brush each bread slice with a little olive oil and broil until they are golden, about 2 minutes.

Just before serving, spread a generous amount of ricotta on each slice of toasted bread, then top with roasted cherry tomatoes. Drizzle the tartines with additional olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

Nutrition information per serving: 560 calories, 35 g fat, 620 mg carbohydrates, 44 g saturated fat, 9 g total sugars, 24 g protein, 30 mg cholesterol, 7 g dietary fiber

Sweet-tart Sun Gold Tomato Soup

From “In My Kitchen,” by Deborah Madison

2 pints (4 cups) Sun Gold tomatoes

2 shallots, finely diced and divided

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or chardonnay vinegar

1 firm avocado, diced into small pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoons slivered basil, marjoram and cilantro leaves

Pluck and discard the stems from the tomatoes, then rinse them. Put tomatoes in a heavy saucepan (with a tightfitting lid) with half of the shallots, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 cup water. Cook over medium-high heat, keeping one ear inclined to the pot. Once you hear the tomatoes popping, take a peek to make sure there’s sufficient moisture in the pan so the tomatoes don’t scorch. If skins are slow to pop and give up tomato juice, add a few extra tablespoons of water as a precaution. Once tomatoes release their juices, reduce heat to low and gently cook for 25 additional minutes.

Run tomatoes through a food mill. You’ll have about 2 cups of thick puree. Chill well, then taste for salt.

Just before serving, combine the remaining shallots in a small bowl with the vinegar, avocado, olive oil and herbs. Season with a pinch or two of salt and some pepper. Spoon soup into small cups or bowl, divide the shallot-avocado mixture among them, and serve. Serves 4.

Nutrition information per serving: 150 calories, 12 g fat, 310 mg sodium, 11 g carbohydrates, 2 g saturated fat, 5 g total sugars, 2 g protein, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g dietary fiber

Tomato, Cheddar and Bacon Pie

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. “Choose a variety of colors and sizes of tomatoes to add some wow,” writes Rebecca Lang in “The Southern Vegetable Book.”

2 1/4 cups self-rising soft-wheat flour, plus extra for rolling dough

1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces

8 cooked bacon slices, chopped

3/4 cup sour cream

2 3/4 pounds assorted tomatoes, divided

2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1 1/2 cup (6 ounces) freshly shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons freshly chopped dill

1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives

1 tablespoon freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 green onion, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons plain yellow cornmeal

Fresh basil for garnish

In a bowl of an electric stand mixer on medium speed (or using a pastry cutter), combine flour and butter and mix until mixture resembles small peas. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Add bacon and mix at low speed until just combined. Add sour cream, 1/4 cup at a time, mixing just until blended after each addition.

On a heavily floured work surface, sprinkle dough lightly with flour and knead 3 to 4 times, adding more flour as needed. Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 13-inch round. Gently transfer dough to a 9-inch fluted tart pan with 2-inch sides and a removable bottom. Press dough into pan; trim off excess dough along edges. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut 2 pounds of tomatoes into 1/4-inch thick slices, and remove seeds. Places tomatoes in a single layer on paper towels and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, stir together Cheddar cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, mayonnaise, egg, dill, chives, parsley, vinegar, green onion, sugar, black pepper and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, mixing until combined.

Pat tomato slices dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle cornmeal over bottom of crust. Lightly spread 1/2 cup cheese mixture onto crust. Layer with half of tomato slices in slightly overlapped rows. Spread with 1/2 cup cheese mixture. Repeat layers, using remaining tomato slices and cheese mixture. Cut remaining 3/4 pound tomatoes into 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange the freshly cut slices on top of pie.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, shielding edges with aluminum foil during last 20 minutes to prevent excessive browning. Remove from oven, transfer tart pan to a wire rack and cool 1 to 2 hours before serving. Garnish with fresh basil. Serves 6 to 8.

Nutrition information per each of 8 servings: 655 calories, 51 g fat, 1,560 mg sodium, 34 g carbohydrates, 25 g saturated fat, 5 mg total sugars, 17 g protein, 135 mg cholesterol, 2 g dietary fiber

Claudia’s Panzanella

From “Impatient Foodie,” by Elettra Wiedemann

For vinaigrette

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sea salt

2 tablespoons freshly chopped oregano

2 tablespoons freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon freshly chopped dill

For panzanella

1/2 loaf crusty Italian bread, cut into cubes or torn into bite-size pieces

2 cups mixed cherry tomatoes

6 vine tomatoes, each cut into 4 wedges

3 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced thickly

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

4 peaches, pitted and sliced

1/2 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted and sliced

To prepare vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, salt, oregano, parsley and dill.

To prepare the panzanella: Place the bread cubes, tomatoes, onion, peaches and olives on a large platter. Drizzle with vinaigrette and serve. Serves 4 to 6.

Nutrition information per each of 6 servings: 380 calories, 22 g fat, 1,580 mg sodium, 41 g carbohydrates, 3 g saturated fat, 17 mg total sugars, 7 g protein, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g dietary fiber